Where the Wild Things Are is a misleadingly adventuresome title for the bizarrely dreary and depressing film version of Maurice Sendak’s beloved children’s book. They should have called it Monsters of Prozac.
The cheapest-looking $100 million movie of the year, Where the Wild Things Are combines a look straight out of the Sid and Marty Krofft children’s shows of the 1970s with the shrillness of a John Lennon-Yoko Ono primal scream therapy record from the same grotty era.
In a script by Dave Eggers that is guaranteed to bore and mystify children while making adults grind their teeth, young Max (sensitively portrayed by child actor Max Records) is a lonely boy who seems to have no father and whose big sister joins a gang of bullies who crush his igloo on the front lawn (but only after Max starts a snowball war with them). Max does a lot of pouting and shouting about this and other big problems such as his dislike of frozen corn. He first jumps on a kitchen counter screaming at his mom (Catherine Keener, in a cameo), then runs away from home, down the street and into a world of his own imagination.
Being John Malkovich and Adaptation director Spike Jonze, a niche talent if there ever was one, is one of the oddest conceivable choices to helm a big-budget movie for all ages. He has said that this is not a children’s film (it sure isn’t!) but a film about childhood. If so, it’s about a really boring and dismal one.
When Max escapes to his imaginary land, across a roiling sea, he is beset by shaggy eight-foot monsters who at first admire his ability to destroy stuff (he runs around attacking the creatures’ huts) then wonder if maybe he might be a better meal than a friend. Max, thinking quickly, persuades them that he has magical powers and is, in fact, their king.
The monsters, led by Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini) and K.W. (Lauren Ambrose) accept this and soon everyone is running around, whooping and yowling and howling and scratching trees with their fingernails.
By now the movie is more than half an hour old and yet there isn’t really a purpose to anything. What is Max’s quest? It seems all he wants to do is hang out with his furry new friends for a while, doing not much, then go home. When everyone decides to sleep together in a giant pile, it’s the movie’s cuddliest moment. But, still: when you’re in a world of unlimited imagination powered by an active nine-year-old, is a nap really the most exciting thing you can muster?
At the halfway point, Max and the gang decide to build a fort (it looks more like a piece of outdoor sculpture designed by Frank Gehry), which would be a reasonable goal if there was some force that needed to be kept at bay. There isn’t.
These monsters do have demons, but they are internal ones. Max tells the furballs that he learned in school that the sun is going to die someday, which depresses them. Carol and K.W. spend a lot of time whining about their dysfunctional relationship. Carol (the boy monster) seems jealous of K.W. (the girl monster) for having a friendship with a pair of owls. Of their relationship, K.W. moans, “It’s complicated.” Another creature worries that Max is showing favoritism towards Carol. Is this a kids’ movie or the transcript of Eggers’ latest therapy session? The movie may lack for a plot, but you can’t say it lacks a theme. Here it is: Everything is very, very depressing. Family, the planet, aging.
The script heaves with downbeat lines like, “It’s hard being a family,” “One day it’s gonna be dust and the whole island’s gonna be dust and I don’t even know what comes after dust,” and “You know how it feels when all your teeth are falling out really slowly … and then one day you don’t have any teeth anymore?”
Whoa, Grampa. Let’s keep it light here. There are children present.
Scary monsters are cool. Funny monsters are wonderful. Even silly monsters would be welcomed by your average nine-year-old. But who needs a movie about neurotic monsters?